Crispin Glover — What Is It?

I should have known better, having so many questions about a film
with an elusive question for a title — and cult actor Crispin Glover as
writer, director, and supporting character. I know, I know. But Glover describes What Is It?, a film
featuring a number of actors with Down’s Syndrome, as "the adventures of a young man whose principal
interests are snails, salt, a pipe and how to get home," all while
being tormented by his "hubristic, racist inner psyche." You say you’re
not dying to know more about his creative process? I say you’re a liar.

While making his controversial debut feature (which first screened
in 2005), Glover had the sensual, surreal work of auteurs like Werner
Herzog
and Stanley Kubrick specifically in mind, though that
doesn’t fully explain a theatrical trailer that features him in a fur
coat and flowing wig among naked women in animal masks — and, of course,
all those snails, one of which is voiced by Fairuza Balk. So, really,
what is it? Thankfully, Glover flew in to elaborate: starting tonight
at 7 p.m., and running all weekend, the as-yet-unreleased What Is It? makes its Minnesota premier with a special live performance and a Q&A session with the man himself.

In the meantime, I got to volley a few of my burning inquiries off
the actually very affable Glover. He answered none of them, at least
not directly, because he wants you to decide for yourself—again, how
could you not want to?

Q: WHY DID YOU ULTIMATELY DECIDE TO MAKE THIS FILM?

CG: I was approached by first-time writers to act in a film they had
written. I told them I would be interested in being in it if I could
direct it and do some re-writing, and that if I directed it I would
like to have a large majority of the characters be played by actors
with Down’s Syndrome. David Lynch agreed to executive produce the film,
and I went to one of the larger corporate entities to see if I could
get funding but they told me they were concerned about having a
majority of the characters be played by actors with Down’s Syndrome. I
decided to make the script into a short film in order to promote that
this was a viable concept, but when I edited it together, it came in at
85 minutes. I realized that, with some more work, I could make it into
a feature film.

And yes, most of the actors do have Down’s Syndrome, but it’s not
about Down’s Syndrome. It’s a psychological reaction to the corporate
restraints that have happened within the film industry in the last 20
to 30 years. Anything that can make the audience member uncomfortable
will not be corporately financed or distributed. The audience member
sits back in their chair, looks up at the screen, and asks ‘Is this
right what I’m watching? Is it wrong? Should the director have done
this? Why am I here? What is it?’ That’s the name of the film-What Is It?
is my psychological reaction to that situation. The only way that
education can happen in film is for something considered taboo to be
referenced. Unfortunately, there are groups of people that [make
statements] like ‘Well, we wouldn’t want to say that…’ Nothing at all
is being asked. Anything that’s a reference to a reference to a taboo
subject is excised instead of being necessarily talked about, and I do
think that’s very damaging.

Q: WILL IT EVER BE RELEASED ON DVD, OR WILL YOU JUST CONTINUE TO TOUR WITH IT?

CG: The normal business model for art films is to release them in
several of the largest cities and use that element as advertising until
it comes out several months later on DVD and makes more money. I do my
live dramatic narration of eight different books I’ve made over the
years, I have a slideshow will the illustrations behind me and then I
show the film and have a Q&A period and book signing afterwards. What Is It?
is [discomforting], but what’s important is to get over a concern with
taboo elements so other genuine thought processes can be explored. I
consider these films educational, because unusualness can be some of
the most educational material around. People [won’t] be attacking me
for exploring uncomfortable areas—[I want to] get into a thoughtful
experience and have true communication.

Q: WHAT IS THE REASON BEHIND THE YOUNG MAN’S JOURNEY? WHERE IS
"HOME" FOR HIM?

CG: Well, the film won Best Narrative Film at the 2005 Ann Arbor
Film Festival, which I always take to heart when I hear people call it
non-narrative. I would argue strongly that it is because it
shows the archetypal journey a hero must go on. They start in a normal
world but it’s disrupted in some way, so they must enter a special
world, go into a series of meeting friends and enemies, trials and
tribulations…then there is the eventual come-up, and some kind of moral
has been brought back into the original world that has been either
righted or not righted. To me, this was a very straightforward way to
have a film dealing with the particular issues I was trying to
illustrate. There can be different nuances, but it’s better to let the
viewer interpret things on their own. It’s not me trying to be
obtuse-it violates a goal of mine if I start dictating to people what
they should be thinking, seeing or understanding.

Q: WHAT IS THIS HUBRISTIC, RACIST INNER PSYCHE THAT AFFLICTS THE OUR HERO?

CG: Again, I think there are things that are good to see within the
context of the film. I believe very much in filmmakers and other
artists being really quiet. On some level, I believe in not saying
anything about the film. When I step in front of an audience after a
screening, I notice a certain amount of unease. I could say that’s
good, but because of the context the film is released in, people often
feel there’s randomness to it. This was not done in a random or
haphazard fashion. I’m very committed to letting people know that it’s
a reaction to corporate restraints in cinema of the last 20 to 30
years, so it then becomes about how they choose to interpret those
nuances.

Q: WHAT ABOUT ALL THE SNAILS?
WHAT ARE THEY SUPPOSED TO SYMBOLIZE?

CG: The strongest reaction I get from any audience is always about the snails. It’s unusual if I show the film and don’t
get questions about the snails. Some of the imagery does deal with
taboo specifics, but I’ve made it a rule not to dwell on them. The
truth of it is that that’s not the reason I made this film. The snails
do symbolize something very specific to me, but I’m very careful to not
say…people say many different things to me about what they
think it means and they’re always very interesting. Sometimes they’re
related to mine and sometimes it’s something quite different. I’m glad
the movie works in that way-that was a goal of mine. I am dedicated to
not violating that element, but I will say that the snails play a very
important role in the visceral emotionalism that exists in the movie.